ORTHODOX CHRISTIANITY 

IN THE CONTEMPORARY WORLD

Christ is, was, and ever shall be in our midst!

Rev. Dn. John Chryssavgis 

Keynote Address, Metropolis of Chicago Assembly

 (October 6, 2011)

 

I. INTRODUCTION

At the threshold of the twentieth anniversary since the election of His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, I would like to observe the Assembly theme through the lens of the Phanar. As the United States prepares for a long election campaign on the fate of its incumbent forty-fourth President, it is helpful to remember that the present Ecumenical Patriarch is the 270th holder of that title. And over the centuries, the Throne of Constantinople has been occupied by an extraordinary range of churchmen: saintly theologians, great administrators, and many scarcely-remembered figures who had little choice but to preserve their ancient office as best they could, usually in dire conditions, for future generations.

It is fair to say that, when Patriarch Bartholomew was elevated in 1991, the future for the Patriarchate in Turkey looked precarious, if not bleak. Upon his election, he was inheriting a position that promised more martyrdom than power. The movements of his predecessor, Patriarch Dimitrios, had been severely circumscribed by the Turkish authorities and there was little reason to expect any quick improvement.  The truth is that, over seventeen centuries, only nine patriarchs completed twenty years of continuous ministry on the Throne. The history of the Ecumenical Patriarchate is filled with examples of patriarchs serving for very few years! In 1397 and 1466, there were three Patriarchs in the same year! In the early, 17th century, Kyrillos I was enthroned six times and still served less than twenty years! In the 17th century alone, there were 52 separate enthronements (for 28 Patriarchs!), and that was with the last eleven years of the Throne being entirely vacant! Athenagoras and Bartholomew are the only ones since the early 12th century! Numerous patriarchs were tortured, exiled, or executed. It is a blessing, then, that both Athenagoras and Bartholomew are so intimately connected with the story of our Church in the United States.

Yet, in many ways, the tenure of His All-Holiness mirrors the story of the Ecumenical Patriarchate through the centuries. As British scholar Steven Runciman once noted: “The great achievement of the Patriarchate was that, in spite of humiliation and poverty and disdain, the Orthodox Church endured and endures as a great spiritual force.”

Having worked at the center of Orthodox Church administration, education and politics for over two decades, I can say without the slightest hesitation that there are very few leaders in our Church that understand the role and responsibility of – as your assembly theme reads – “Orthodoxy in the contemporary world” like the Ecumenical Patriarch. Patriarch Bartholomew “gets it.” This year also marks the fiftieth anniversary since the Patriarch’s ordination to the diaconate and, therefore, immediately reflects – even defines – my own ministry, especially since I have worked closely with him for twenty-two of my twenty-seven years as deacon. Over the last ten years, His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios has granted me the distinct blessing and unique privilege of working almost exclusively for His All-Holiness as a clergyman of the Archdiocese of America.

So I would like to offer some ostensive pointers, to provide some broad brushstrokes of the multidimensional portrait of the Patriarch in order to demonstrate how his vision of the Church is a passionate struggle to portray the universality of the Body of Christ, to portray Christ as “alive” in our suffering world, which desperately needs forgiveness, compassion and love. This is not a pretext for triumphalism or arrogance; God knows – and, at least when we are honest with ourselves, we too know – our weaknesses all too well. Indeed, it’s the dimension of the Cross that brings life and uniqueness to the ministry of the Ecumenical Patriarch. In everything that he says and does, this perspective complements the theological depth and the ecumenical breadth, both the theory and the practice. We are not a political or secular institution; we are not the Vatican – in fact, when we try to be, we fail abysmally; precisely because we betray our identity. For the Patriarch, “the term ‘ecumenical’ is more than a name: it is a worldview.”

 

II. THE ECUMENICAL HEART OF A PATRIARCH

In the Patriarch’s understanding, the principle task and mission of the Church in the contemporary world is to express (and manifest), across all historical limits and cultural borders, the unity and universality of the Body of Christ, the wider pastoral ministry and the supra-national dimension of the Church. Trust me, he does not have geographical “ambitions” or jurisdictional “interests”; there are far bigger fish to fry!

Orthodoxy can play a major role in our global world. But it must become a critical and prophetic conscience of the peoples entrusted to it. And in order to do so, it must disabuse itself of the idolatry of nationalism – I might add: whether this be Greek or American! – and embrace an ecumenical Orthodoxy, where the dialectic of unity in diversity is recovered and revived. It must free itself of all provincial and parochial arrogance or competitiveness so as to provide an unbiased witness to all humanity of the Orthodox traditions of confession, metanoia, forgiveness, communion and love that bring about healing and reconciliation – universal ways of bringing peace and understanding to a world often divided and in agony. 

All of the Church’s indispensable structures (bishops and councils) and even its essential features (liturgy and spirituality) must be placed in the service of God, the Gospel and the Body of Christ. Then, the centers of primacy will not be centralizing powers but places of communion. And the rediscovery of the Church’s ecumenical nature will wear down the stifling boundaries of our all-too-human “autocephalies.” 

What an example that would be to religion, which is often tempted by the opposite! What a model for the world, which longs for unity and peace! What an ideal for our planet, which yearns for healing!

So let me briefly outline some of the contours of the Patriarch’s “ecumenical” breadth and vision over the last twenty years:

 

A. Initiatives Within his Immediate Jurisdiction

1. Synaxis of Hierarchs of the Throne: Patriarch Bartholomew was the first ever to convene assemblies of hierarchs of the Ecumenical Throne throughout the world on a biennial basis in Istanbul.

2. The synodal system is an essential feature of Orthodoxy, a fundamental distinction and essential difference from the ecclesiology of the Roman Catholic and Protestant denominations. In 2004, for the first time in over 1000 years, His All-Holiness introduced from abroad six (out of a total of twelve) outside members to the Holy and Sacred Synod, the highest decision-making body of the Mother Church, a pioneer and bold gesture. Even his convincing the Turkish government to grant citizenship to Metropolitans abroad means that, for the first time in history, a wider pool of hierarchs is entitled to vote and even counted as candidates for the Patriarchal Throne!

3. The consecration of Holy Chrism (1992, 2002, 2012) is a crucial sacramental link with all Orthodox Churches. The exclusive right to consecrate the Holy Chrism of the Ecumenical Patriarchate does not mean that local churches are dependent on or subordinate to Constantinople. Rather, it is a tangible sign of the bond of all patriarchates and autocephalous churches with the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Again, it is not a sign of superiority, but a visible sign of unity.

4. Over the last twenty years, more than thirty Synodal Acts have recognized over 220 new saints of our Church from Greece, Russia, Asia Minor, and Western Europe.

 

B. Inter-Orthodox Coordination and Cooperation

As you know, the Orthodox Church is a family of fourteen Patriarchates and Autocephalous (or independent) Churches, all of them united in faith and sacramental communion while remaining self-governing in their interior life. Within this worldwide communion, the Patriarch of Constantinople enjoys an honorary primacy. Yet, unlike the Pope of Rome, he does not claim any power of jurisdiction. His position is that of elder brother or “first among equals.” The Ecumenical Patriarch does not impose decisions upon the other Orthodox Churches; he does not command or coerce; he does not interfere uninvited in their internal affairs. He proposes, but does not compel. He “convenes,” but always by “consulting” with the other Orthodox Churches.

In this perspective, Patriarch Bartholomew was the first ever to convoke a Synaxis of Primates, assembling all the heads of the autocephalous churches: in Istanbul (1992, only weeks after his enthronement), on the island of Patmos (1995), in Jerusalem and Istanbul on the occasion of the new millennium (2000), and most recently again in Istanbul (2008). It is here, in such Panorthodox gatherings, that one senses the visible expression of the unity of the individual, independent Orthodox Churches, the tangible manifestation of the catholic conscience of the Church.

It may seem like a small endeavor, but heads of the autocephalous Orthodox Churches had not assembled since 1872 – ironically, at a council held in Constantinople to condemn the heresy of phyletism (nationalism). In 1902, the visionary Ecumenical Patriarch Joachim II proposed that the local Orthodox Churches meet every two years; but this never materialized. Yet, things changed dramatically in the wake of the collapse of Communism in the late 1980s. Thus, it is during Bartholomew’s patriarchal tenure that the Church of Albania was reconstituted in 1991, the autocephaly of the Czech Lands and Slovakia was recognized in 1998, and the autonomy of the Church of Estonia was restored in 1999. And he chaired a “greater” or appeals synod to resolve the internal schism within the Patriarchate of Bulgaria in 1998. 

In 1978, the late Fr. John Meyendorff wrote:

It is unquestionable that the Orthodox conception of the Church recognizes the need for a leadership of the world episcopate, for a certain spokesmanship by the first patriarch, for a ministry of coordination without which conciliarity is impossible. In the present chaotic years, the Orthodox Church could indeed use wise, objective and authoritative leadership from the ecumenical patriarchate.

I cannot help but wonder how Fr. Meyendorff, who died only six months after Patriarch Bartholomew’s election, might have smiled with approval at more recent developments and decisions.

At the Fifth Synaxis of the Heads of Orthodox Churches in 2008, His All-Holiness focused on difficulties that plague Orthodox Christianity worldwide in a speech that I consider historical and definitive for the future of the Orthodox Church. He boldly, albeit unassumingly addressed the world’s Orthodox leaders:

We have received and preserve the true faith. We commune of the same Body and Blood. We basically keep the same liturgical typikon and are governed by the same sacred Canons.

Despite this, we must admit in all honesty that sometimes we present an image of incomplete unity, as if we were not one Church, but rather a confederation or a federation of churches … frequently attributing priority to national interests in relationship with one another. In light of this image, which somewhat recalls the situation in Corinth when the first letter to the Corinthians was written, the Apostle Paul would ask: has Orthodoxy been divided? 

The Patriarch then proposed to advance preparations for the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church and to resolve the pending matter of the Orthodox Diaspora, one of the most challenging situations in the Orthodox world.

Thus, at the invitation of the Ecumenical Patriarch, following consensus by the Heads of Orthodox Churches at the Phanar in October 2008, the Fourth Preconciliar Pan-Orthodox Conference met in June 2009 at the Orthodox Center of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Chambésy, Geneva, and created the Episcopal Assemblies throughout the world.

So you see: for Patriarch Bartholomew, primacy is not merely an honor; nor is it an eastern form of the papacy. In fact, Constantinople’s weakness, its very “poverty,” ensures its impartiality and, paradoxically, its preeminence. The Ecumenical Patriarch has no pretensions to being a “universal bishop.” He claims no dogmatic infallibility, no direct jurisdiction over all the Churches. As a center of appeal for the sake of preserving the unity of faith, his primacy does not lie in power and prestige but in sacrifice and service to the sister Orthodox Churches. When the officers of the Episcopal Assembly of North and Central America visited the Phanar in September, 2010, he stated:

What is most critical for us as Orthodox leaders is to apply the theology and traditions that we have received from the Church Fathers, ultimately to practice what we preach about the essential unity of the Body of Christ, which is never divided and which comprises many members even while constituting His One Church.

So the aim is a united Body of Christ – or at least a more united Body of Christ; or at least the willingness for a united Body of Christ. Orthodoxy must speak with one voice in order to be heard, to have any impact, and to bear any fruit.

The vision, as far as I can see – at least in my humble opinion – of Patriarch Bartholomew is ultimately to create the appropriate conditions of unity in order to convene the Holy and Great Council. Since the day of his enthronement (indeed, I would dare to say, well before his enthronement) His All-Holiness has – systematically and patiently, deliberately and gradually, without undue forcefulness or unnecessary hesitation – worked assiduously, moved carefully, and advanced steadily toward the convocation of this Great Council, which would be the first since the Seventh Ecumenical Council. I do not need to remind you that – while numbering of the last ecumenical council may differ among scholars – the 7th Great Council was held in 787! 

Nikos Kazantzakis adopts a powerful image in his novel Christ Recrucified, depicting Christ sitting quietly in the carpentry workshop of Joseph, carving small crosses out of wood. Over the last forty years, His All-Holiness has been carving and shaping the events that we are witnessing and anticipating in our day!

In many ways, we could say that NO ecumenical council has ever been held in the comprehensive manner with which His All-Holiness visualizes convening it. In some ways, we could say that NEVER before in history has such a broad assembly of bishops been held, since in the past there were only five churches (patriarchates) participating in an event organized, facilitated and sponsored by the emperor! Today, there would be fourteen! It is not far-fetched to claim that Patriarch Bartholomew would in fact be achieving something unthinkable in the previous twenty centuries!

Orthodox unity is his only ambition and ultimate aspiration. While he is often misunderstood and maligned for claiming a “supra-national” vision, it is never an ethnic preference; it is not, for instance, solely directed to non-Greek churches, such as the Patriarchate of Moscow. The same unity is the primary concern when problems arise with Greek-speaking autocephalous churches, such as the Patriarchate of Jerusalem (1990-1993) or the Church of Greece (2003-2004).

C. Inter-Christian Relations and Reconciliation

The same ecumenical principle is evident in the Patriarch’s dialogue with other Christian Churches. Once again, this is an attitude for which he is often criticized and slandered. Yet, the Christian world is fortunate to have in this historic office a thinker and pastor of such wisdom, capable of holding the diverse problems of the day firmly within the generous bounds of classical Christian orthodoxy. Christians of all confessions recognize and give thanks for the witness of His All-Holiness to these great truths and for his unfailing ecumenical charity and courtesy.

Way ahead of his time; way ahead of other churches – Orthodox and non-Orthodox – Patriarch Bartholomew has been forging new ground and pioneering openness! The ecumenical vision and conviction of the Church of Constantinople is literally cause to be grateful, a harbinger of fresh air in the church and the world. It is, for example, much harder for the sort of ignorant prejudice and intolerable exclusivism propounded by some local Metropolitans in Greece to be nurtured or cultivated within the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

In a moving homily delivered in 1997 at St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the Patriarch “acknowledged that failure and sin in our history is something we must learn to share as Christians – not something we can exploit to reproach one another, but a matter of making ourselves freely responsible for each other within the Body of Christ.” In fact, some of his boldest sermons have been delivered at the Vatican! And still, he is criticized for supposedly “betraying” Orthodoxy!

When the Patriarch visited Rome on June 29, 2004, the Pope apologized for the Fourth Crusade and the sacking of Constantinople. In response, the Patriarch asked for no material compensation, but only for the return of the relics of Sts. Gregory the Theologian and John Chrysostom as a tangible step toward moral restitution. In some ways, I would dare suggest that this return (after 800 years) of the precious relics of two former Patriarchs of Constantinople was just as significant as the lifting (in 1965) of the anathemas of 1054 between Patriarch Athenagoras and Pope Paul VI. The latter was profoundly symbolical as a gesture; but the former was a tangible step toward reconciliation.

 

D. Inter-Religious Understanding and Tolerance

Since Orthodox Christians have a 550-year history of co-existence with Muslims, His All-Holiness has initiated a series of meetings with Moslem leaders throughout the Middle East. To this end, he has traveled to Libya, Syria, Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Azerbaijan, Qatar, Kazakhstan and Bahrain, as a result earning greater credibility and creating more bridges between Christianity and Islam than any other Christian leader. In fact, his level of comfort among politicians and leaders, businessmen and intellectuals, both in Turkey and globally, is extraordinary. He has met – and mingled comfortably – with such diverse leaders as Rabin and Arafat, Castro and Clinton!

“On this planet created by God for us all, there is room for all of us” are the words uttered by the Patriarch at the site of St Nicholas’s Church in New York City, beside the ruins of the World Trade Center in March 2002. On official visits, a Muslim associate will often be part of his entourage, even at this moment when he is preparing to visit the Holy Mountain.

Underlining the fundamental compatibility of Orthodoxy and religious freedom, human rights, and democracy, he preaches that any encroachment against religion is a crime in the name of religion. His philosophy is based on tolerance of the “other” welcomed in his/her otherness and uniqueness – the discernment and recognition of the face of Christ in the face of our neighbor.

 

E. Ecological Initiatives and Activities

I will omit here the pioneering ecological initiatives of His All-Holiness, for which he was named “champion of the earth” by the United Nations, one of the world’s “most influential people” by Time Magazine, the “green patriarch” by the worldwide media, and “one of the people who might save the planet” by the Guardian newspaper. In this area, the Patriarch has staked out a clear moral and spiritual vision dominated by a sincere concern for the environment.

Once again, this activity has never been an exercise in public relations; it is neither politics nor fashion. It is a deep theological, liturgical and spiritual conviction that the incarnation of the Word of God calls us to be maximalists – environmentalists, even “materialists” – because the whole created world is the Body of Christ.

 

III. CONCLUDING REMARKS

Permit me a personal and humble conclusion. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew’s greatest strength, I believe – and I have even heard him admit this in private – is his administrative skillfulness. He studied with some of the greatest Orthodox and Roman Catholic theologians of the twentieth century; but theology is not his greatest strength. He takes seriously his monastic vows, attending daily services at the Phanar; the truth is that the image of a patriarch attending matins and vespers, closing each day with compline in his private chapel, is unfamiliar to most of us. Still, he is not (as he freely admits) called primarily to be a monk. He is pastoral and sensitive; but that’s not where he is trained to excel. He is a brilliant administrator. He knows people, he loves being with people, he is exceptionally good with people. His principal role is not to teach or to advise; it is to direct and administer. He is, I believe, a “good shepherd.” In that respect, he’s not “the last Patriarch in Turkey,” as CNN sensationalized the phrase (even pilfering the title “the last patriarch” from a novel); he’s actually the one that has ensured that he won’t be the last!

Very few people could have foreseen in 1991 that Patriarch Bartholomew would become one of the best-known and most respected religious figures in the world, touching millions through Orthodox Christianity. What the Patriarch has achieved in twenty years is nothing less than phenomenal, if not miraculous. By focusing on problems of wider importance, he has managed to reinvest his ancient office with a moral authority and public profile, of which many religious leaders can only dream. In the testimonial of the Archbishop of Canterbury, “Bartholomew has turned the relative political weakness of his office into a strength.”

This strength through weakness and this leadership through service are precisely what are needed to meet the challenges for Orthodox unity in the contemporary world. By embracing a universal, “ecumenical” Orthodoxy, we can bear witness to the unity of the Body of Christ in a suffering world that increasingly aches for Christ’s hope and healing.